5 years, 6 months ago
|Oh Cliff, you take me to the most romantic places.|
It’s May 19, 1973. Wizzard is at number one with “See My Baby Jive,” which stays at number one for four weeks until Suzi Quatro’s “Can The Can” unseats it for a week, followed by 10cc’s “Rubber Bullets.” Also in the charts are The Sweet, Gary Glitter, David Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and, um... Perry Como. I’m exaggerating a little bit, as Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac also chart. Since we haven’t talked about them in a while and it’s worth checking in occasionally, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane is at the top, with Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon all charting. Along with two Beatles compilations and 40 Fantastic Hits From The 50’s And 60’s. So a bit of a nostalgia trip creeping in there.
In real news, Skylab launches, followed immediately by Skylab 2, which whizzes off to the stars to fix the first one. Lord Lambton resigns from Parliament after The News of the World busts him on his fondness for prostitutes. The Greek military junta puts an end to the whole monarchy business, Secretariat wins the Triple Crown, and the Ezeiza massacre takes place in Argentina, with snipers shooting supporters of Peron. And finally, Peter Dinsdale commits his first fatal act of arson, killing a six year old boy in Kingston upon Hull.
While on television, it’s the end of Season Ten of Doctor Who, which means it’s time for Robert Sloman and Barry Letts to lay another Curate’s egg. But unlike certain other Curate’s eggs, this one hatches giant maggots that kill you by turning you bright green. Readers may be noticing a certain pattern of disdain for the writing of Mr. Sloman, and to a lesser extent Mr. Letts. (Though I’ve not seen a clear account of what their process is, my assumption, especially given that Letts demonstrates skill in other aspects of the program, is that Letts comes up with some story ideas and leaves them for Sloman to turn into a script, with most of the resulting defects entering at that stage. But there’s a whiff of dangerous revisionism here - much of the appeal of that apportioning of blame comes down to the fact that Barry Letts is a decades-long friend of the series with numerous positive contributions, whereas Robert Sloman goes away after Planet of the Spiders. Leaving the blame with the guy who doesn’t keep showing up is convenient.) And while The Green Death is without a doubt his best script yet, and rightly deserves much of the praise heaped upon it, what all of this misses is that it is also by miles his worst script yet.
This may seem a contradiction in terms, but it’s one that gets at the heart of the issues with the Sloman/Letts scripts. They are full of some of the best scenes and ideas in the Pertwee era, and also full of some of the most atrocious plotting, torturous dialogue, and, in the case of The Green Death, appalling politics of the Pertwee era. And unlike a flawed genius of a story in the Tenth Planet or Talons of Weng-Chiang modes (to pick examples from before and after this), the Sloman/Letts scripts seem to be utterly haphazard, as if written by the Batman villain Two-Face flipping a coin before every decision to see if it will be a good one or a bad one. And somehow, when Sloman is involved, this process infects every aspect of the series, including ones like effects and acting that have no direct relationship with the script.
To start in a microcosm, let’s take this story’s most remembered feature: the maggots. The maggots are a tour de force - recognizably and definitively the most remembered and frightening monster of the Pertwee era and arguably of the entire show. A casual viewer of the show in the Pertwee era, if asked about Doctor Who, will almost unfailingly and without being prompted mention the maggots as terrifying and their most vivid memory, even if they then proceed to mangle most of the rest of the story. And there are reasons for this - the monster construction was amazing, with fox skulls being used for the mouths of the maggots to give a truly gruesome, visceral look to them. This, combined with the not actually bad at all decision to scatter the landscapes with inflated condoms to suggest the number of maggots around, makes for some very, very effective monsters.
Which are then promptly ruined by some truly wretched sequences of the Doctor and Benton driving Bessie through maggot-infested hills that are achieved by putting a Bessie prop in the studio and using CSO to paste in a scrolling backdrop of maggoty hills. It looks unbelievably awful, in no small part because the visible difference between film and video gives the series a clear visual distinction between interior and exterior shots, and so when you plaster together a filmed landscape with a video foreground, it not only looks wrong because of that contrast, it looks wrong because it’s in the complete wrong visual style for exteriors in Doctor Who. The result is that the maggots go, between shots, from being the best monster of the Pertwee era to contending with the Drashigs in the massive failure sweepstakes. And while on the one hand this is just another example of the Letts era’s tendency to dramatically over-estimate the extent of what can be done with CSO, the immediate gap between good and bad here is truly staggering.
I bring up this example not because I’m massively fascinated by the special effects in Doctor Who, which generally strike me as interesting only insofar as they demonstrate that serious science fiction can function with poor special effects provided that they’re at least of a consistent style and the actors still take them seriously (a point I’ll expand upon when we get to The Ark in Space). Rather, it’s that I want to highlight the real difficulty of talking at length about The Green Death. Not to pull the curtain back too far on the elite secrets of a Doctor Who blogger, but when I hit a story I’m ambivalent about for some reason, from a writing perspective, there is usually nothing easier in the world. The “on the one hand, X, on the other hand Y” structure has powered a number of entries to date, and it’s going to power a ton more. The only decision is whether to lead with the good and close with the bad, or lead with the bad and close with the good. But with The Green Death, the good and the bad are so utterly intertwined that it’s impossible to create a coherent description of one that doesn’t dip constantly into the other.
In a lot of ways, this is fitting, if only because it captures my feelings on the Pertwee era at large very well. While the Pertwee era introduced a ton of stuff that was brilliant, and a fair number of things that were rightly massively influential on the ensuing 38 years of Doctor Who, it also made a number of very fundamental missteps. And more to the point, it’s not possible to easily separate those into “good Pertwee” and “bad Pertwee.” This is more than just the schizophrenia of the early seasons as the show tried to balance its desire to be an action show with large military supporting cast and its commitment to the roaring glam aesthetic - an issue that really came down to two competing aesthetics with no particular reason why someone who liked one would also like the other. This is something deeper - an ambivalence within the core DNA of the Pertwee era that at times manifests between or within individual shots or lines in a scene.
So talking about The Green Death precludes an easy structure of plusses and minuses. So instead, let’s just start somewhere. Actually, since we were just talking about the action/glam distinction, perhaps the first thing to comment on is that none of the preceding eighteen Pertwee stories managed to split the difference between the action and glam aesthetics quite so evenly as this. On the one hand, this story is a corporate conspiracy thriller about pollution that happens to feature giant maggots of death. On the other hand, it’s a story in which the Doctor teams up with a bunch of hippies to use the power of crystals to overcome an evil psychic computer in a bewildering blur of psychedelic video effects.
It’s tempting to say that both plots have good and bad points, but I think this is actually a bad misreading of how this story works. More accurately, both plots are screwed up royally and delivered with the barest modicum of competence, but the fact that the show has finally managed to split the difference and have a plot that’s firmly working in both the glam and action aesthetics, both of which are by now familiar modes for the show, and the fact that it juxtaposes them confidently is enough to make the whole work despite the massive deficiencies of the individual parts.
Judged as a conspiracy thriller, The Green Death is hilariously ham-fisted. It’s not just that the malevolent corporation is so farcically malevolent that even I, the sort of person who has a favorite revolutionary Marxist (Guy Debord, duh), found myself going “oh, that’s a bit unfair.” Though the fact that they contrive to have Stevens (played by the amazing Jerome Willis, who I know primarily from the sublimely great late 70s spy series The Sandbaggers) evoke both Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” and the famed “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” quotes is almost charming in its over-earnestness. Nor is it that UNIT, by now a series of party pieces relying entirely on how good Nicholas Courtney and John Levene are, and how good the production team appears to think Richard Franklin is, are sub-par conspiracy thriller characters at best. (The prospect of Mike Yates, who manages to look ill at ease doing everything, as an undercover operative is the sort of ludicrous misjudgment that, under John Nathan-Turner, is cited as evidence of the apocalypse, at times rightly. And while we’re comparing Sloman unfavorably with the Nathan-Turner era, I strongly suspect that after giving up writing Doctor Who scripts he went on to teach Pip and Jane Baker to write dialogue.)
Rather it’s that Sloman appears to have missed the fact that at the heart of the conspiracy thriller genre is a series of unexpected twists and revelations coupled with severe differences in who knows what at any given moment, and has instead written an utterly straightforward story in which the only thing that resembles a twist is that there’s an evil computer. While this is good for one of the best cliffhanger lines ever, as John Dearth laconically gloats “I am the computer,” it’s no Manchurian Candidate. (On the other hand BOSS is fantastic as a character, doubly so for the hilariously weird revelation that BOSS became sentient and all-powerful because he realized that the secret to human creativity was inefficiency and thus made himself more inefficient. Though this would perhaps make more sense and work better if he didn't then obsessively rant about how everything must be made more efficient.)
Whereas in terms of psychedelic swirls of color, the story runs into a problem that fandom seems inexplicably to have blinded itself to. See, the entire resolution of the story hinges on a moment in episode five in which the Doctor pulls a blue crystal out of his pocket and uses it to deprogram a brainwashed Mike Yates. This is fine. The problem is that the blue crystal has been almost entirely absent from the story up to this point. The Doctor acquires it in the first episode when he nips off in the TARDIS on a pleasure cruise to Metebelis 3, mentions it about twice in the next three episodes, and then suddenly pulls it out of his pocket and solves all the world’s problems in episode five. It’s a pathetically deus ex machina resolution, and anyone who even tries to criticize Russell T. Davies’s resolutions with a straight face while maintaining that this story is a classic is being ridiculous.
The problem is that fans make much of the fact that there’s an off-handed mention of Metebelis 3 in Carnival of Monsters (the Doctor thinks he’s arrived there but is wrong - the planet is mentioned exactly twice in the whole story), and of the fact that the blue crystal is central to the plot of Planet of the Spiders next season. Accordingly, when it appears here, they just take it in the context of those, often describing this story with some comment about how the Doctor “finally” makes it to Metebelis 3 as if it were the resolution to something more than a throwaway line over three months ago, thus giving the impression that the ending here is in any way set up or built to. It’s not - the psychedelia is shoehorned in with the sort of subtlety usually reserved for sending in idiotic bureaucrats in episode three or four to help stretch out a six parter.
But despite the fact that The Green Death is both a lousy conspiracy thriller and a lousy piece of glam-era psychedelia, the fact that it switches back and forth between them constantly and with utter confidence ultimately renders the bulk of these faults moot. Incredibly and improbably, the story works anyway. The twenty weeks of quite solid postmodern juxtaposition before this, combined with how quintessentially Doctor Who the two registers the story works in are, makes the inadequacies of the two plots disappear under the cheeky thrill of seeing them done together.
The story’s politics are similarly strangely muddled. I occasionally get adamant, as you may have noticed, about the fact that this blog is not actually a blog of Doctor Who reviews, and in complaining to a friend about some negative comments I found while narcissistically Googling myself, because the only reason writers have friends is to complain about bad reviews, I described the Pertwee phase of the project as a story about utopian ideology in the aftermath of the 1960s that happens to be structured around a television series. So obviously I have an inherent partiality to Barry Letts, given the degree to which he pursues an actively socially conscious vision of Doctor Who.
And if you’re the sort of person who is disappointed that the utopian revolutionary movements of the 1960s petered out - and obviously, not only am I that sort of person, I think the nature of the Troughton era firmly commits Doctor Who to being that sort of show - there’s a lot to love here. Overdone as the anti-corporate politics of this story are, there’s a sincere anger to this story that’s compelling and still relevant. And the way in which those issues are approached is genuinely interesting. By entwining the Doomwatch-style conspiracy thriller with psychedelia, Letts and Sloman come up with a unique perspective on it, and one that’s worth unpacking briefly.
The previous two Sloman/Letts scripts make it clear that Letts (and this does seem to mostly be Letts) has an investment in a worldview that shares much of the mysticism of David Whitaker’s alchemical worldview, although as we’ve seen there are profound differences between the two men. This story is no different. Crucial to this is the role of decay and death in magical thinking. Alchemically speaking, putrefaction is best understood not as decay but simply as transformation. The rotting of the old is a necessary process in the creation of the new. This is literalized in the way that life springs out of rot - such as, for instance, maggots. Or, for that matter, mushrooms. Putrefaction, although obviously scary and traumatic, is a necessary phase of development - a sort of purification in which the old and unnecessary melts away and is replaced by new life. In a real sense, of course, putrefaction is inherent in any discussion of petroleum, crude oil itself being the product of putrefaction.
The thing that it is easy to miss in The Green Death is that both sides of the debate - the hippies at Wholewheal and the corporate nasties at Global Chemicals - fundamentally believe that the world as it exists is doomed and that some new world is going to take its place. And each of them have their own magic form of putrefaction - petroleum and maggots for Global Chemicals, mushrooms and psychedelia for Wholewheal. The central battle of The Green Death, in other words, is over what form of life will emerge from the putrefaction of the world, with Global Chemicals putrefying into lethal poison while Wholewheal putrefies into enlightenment. And it’s a really interesting, rich take on the idea of apocalyptic fervor and utopianism.
On top of that, the story earns scads of political points by being set in Wales. For British readers, the significance of the show giving recognition and cultural legitimacy to the Welsh portion of the audience is clear. For Americans, we may need an analogy. The closest equivalent to Wales in the US is probably the Appalachian region of Kentucky and West Virginia. Both regions had an economic boom from coal mining that eventually turned sour, leaving gutted industrialized wastelands mixed with crushing poverty and no meaningful infrastructure for self-improvement. Both regions found themselves ignored by both sides of the political spectrum - the right displaying its usual lack of concern for poverty, the left turning its nose up at the uneducated and often socially conservative populations in favor of more glamorous causes. So to set a story there is a really significant move in moving the concerns of an unfairly marginalized population into the mainstream.
Unfortunately, Sloman delivers a script in which every Welsh character save Cliff is a generic comedy yokel with no discernible traits to differentiate them from the other comedy yokels. Even the Brigadier and Jo get in moments of sniggering at the cute little rural Welshmen and their funny dialect. It’s crass, ugly, condescending, and wrong. But worse than that, it’s one of those moments in which the show steps in it in such a way that a fundamental flaw is revealed - by all appearances, the show genuinely believes that the people of Llanfairfach are in some sense complicit in their own misfortune, or at the very least are simply hapless props in a war between corporations and well-educated hippies. (Malcolm Hulke’s novelization of the story - and remember that the novelizations for the Pertwee era are in many ways more influential than the stories themselves, having spent at times two decades as the only repeatable versions of the stories - addresses many of these problems and offers a far, far more nuanced and graceful portrayal of the people of Llanfairfach)
This condescension is in many ways just the tip of the iceberg however. The problems in this story really come up when we spend more than about five seconds looking at Cliff. Here’s a fun question for anybody watching this story - given that the end evil of BOSS is that it wants to become an absolute dictator in a world in which free will has been done away with, what, exactly, distinguishes Professor Jones from BOSS?
Consider - he’s an overtly charismatic leader who attracts female groupies. But more broadly, it’s clear that somewhere along the line people lost track of whether Cliff is an eccentric professor running a commune in Wales, or whether he’s a Utopian visionary looking to rework the world into his own preferred form. But on balance, he mostly ends up the latter - someone who just wants to force the world to suit his will. In absolutely any other story, a character who has the attitudes towards other people that Cliff has would be the villain.
To be clear, it’s not that Cliff’s view of what the world should be is a bad one. Rather, it’s his vision of how to obtain it, which appears to be to leverage UN funding into “unlimited money” so as to provide food for the entire planet while forcing people to abandon their lifestyles in favor of ones he finds more optimal. Actually, having just said that, I am genuinely at a loss for what the significant difference between Cliff’s plan and Salamander’s is.
Worse than the story’s embrace of a would-be dictator, however, is the fact that the story hammers on the point that Cliff is a younger version of the Doctor. The immediate instinct is to recoil at this and insist that, no, Cliff is nothing like the Doctor. Two things prevent this. The first, which we’ve alluded to before, is that Cliff actually is, in many ways, a plausible younger version of Pertwee’s Doctor. The patrician “I know best and you’re a fool who must be stopped if you don’t listen to me” view implicit in Cliff’s attitude to the world can be made to describe Pertwee's Doctor without much trouble. And what’s really crushing here is how impossible to disentangle from the best of Pertwee this is. Pertwee’s high points are often his strident and passionate speeches about evil. But that’s also the exact “privileged outsider lecturing everyone on how they should be like him” attitude that is so troubling in Cliff.
In many ways this is a sort of original sin for the Pertwee era - a fundamental consequence of conceiving of the Doctor as a dashing, charismatic action hero. Because he’s also a brilliant alien, having him be such a creature of privilege fundamentally makes him the condescending outsider. And the nature of the politics engaged in from 1970-1974 means that he is constantly coming upon situations in which the privileged outsider is a problematic role.
The second reason we can’t really avoid the claim that Cliff is a younger Doctor, however, is by far the more troubling one: Jo says he is. In fact, Jo goes ahead and marries him. The degree to which this is poorly set up is striking even given what we’ve already discussed. Cliff simply seems to assume that Jo is going to marry him, and once she acquiesces, the wedding is apparently held immediately. On top of that, Cliff is basically horrible to Jo through the entire story, berating and insulting her to an extent that is genuinely shocking, especially in ostensible comparison with the Doctor. It’s almost impossible to root for the couple
But what’s strange is that as poorly set up as it is, it’s still unmistakably one of the main points of the story. Unlike past characters who have been unexpectedly married off - most obviously Susan and Vicki - here from episode one there’s a sense that Jo is going to leave the Doctor for Cliff, starting from when she spurns his offer to go to Metebelis 3 in favor of going to South Wales, leaving him to slink into the TARDIS like Puff the Magic Dragon to his cave. Jo’s first scene with Cliff is deliberately constructed to parallel her first scene with the Doctor, with her inadvertently spoiling an experiment and being yelled at in both cases. It’s clear that more thought has gone into Jo’s departure than any past companion departure, including the previous best in this regard, Victoria. It’s just that much of the thought is barely coherent.
There is, incidentally, a contingent of fans who insist on taking the scene in which Jo resists the Master’s hypnosis in Frontier in Space and her departure in this episode and attempting to claim that there is some lengthy three-year plotline of her learning from the Doctor and eventually growing up to go her own way. To call this a ludicrous exaggeration would be understatement, and only the even more farcical claim that there is some sort of coherent Metebelis Three plot running through Season Ten makes this idea look good. But that doesn’t mean that the resolution of this story is any less effective than is claimed. For all the absurdity necessary to get to this point, the final scene of the Doctor sadly ducking out of the party and driving off alone, with Jo looking stricken as he leaves even though she stays with her new life is brilliant.
But its power comes not from how it’s built to, but rather from how its played. Pertwee and Manning are both on fire for the scene, but more importantly, in terms of calendar time, Jo has been the companion for longer than any previous companion, and, for that matter, for about as long as Troughton was the Doctor. So her departure is a major moment on its own, and having the Doctor be devastated by it is an enormously effective way to get the audience to feel it. And more to the point, it's a brave decision to show the charismatic hero of the show vulnerable and hurt like this - something we haven't really seen since the Doctor left Susan behind, and that was a very different Doctor who was not played as the charismatic leading man.
But there’s a larger issue here. Over the course of the three years Jo was around, the series learned to work in a new way based on glam and postmodern aesthetics, and reinvented itself back into its classic format after the experiment of the earthbound setting. And Jo became a cornerstone of that approach via her plucky and wholesale embrace of ridiculous adventures and her tendency to flagrantly break the rules of whatever type of story she’s put into, deleting all manner of narrative logics to replace them with her own innocent charm. She was the perfect foil to the Doctor’s patrician ways - a way of throwing worlds into chaos without the condescending privilege of a rich white man.
And now she’s gone - a fact that inevitably seems to foreshadow a turn away from gleeful bricolages and juxtapositions and that demands the show, having just hit a creative peak, reinvent itself again. More broadly, there’s a sense of clouds approaching - a sense that the kaleidoscope of video effects that made up the climax of this story were the last great hurrah of one version of the program, and that, like the Doctor driving off morosely against the Welsh sunset, we are moving into darker and more uncertain times.
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